Category Archives: creativity

7

Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

3

Writing your way to a better idea

One of the hardest things for writers is the process of coming up with an idea. And understandably so. Finding a topic doesn’t just happen, and so when I had to write creative papers for my college courses, each one started the same way: with a brainstorming session.

The mind is a funny thing. Our brains are capable of making some astounding—not to mention bizarre–associations, and when you let your thoughts run wild, that random stream of consciousness is likely to result in some pretty interesting ideas. There are a million and one different brainstorming techniques out there. In fact, brainstorming has evolved to become a bit of a science—seriously just type the word into Wikipedia and see—but I usually find the simplest methods to be the most effective.

Freewriting is one such method. Even if you can’t think of anything to write at first, the simple act of putting pen to paper can get those creative juices flowing. Clear your mind. Let go. Write. It may take a while to get going, and you may only end up writing “I have no idea what to write” for the first ten minutes of your freewriting session. But that’s encouraged. The ideas will come if you let them, if you keep churning out sentence after sentence.

If you’re having trouble, try doing some more in-depth research on freewriting and other brainstorming techniques. I find instructive tips such as this one to be very helpful. Not every thought you have during a brainstorming session will be gold. In fact, most will be absurd or downright nonsensical. Just remember, it only takes one good idea for the whole brainstorming session to be worth it. Be patient and have fun. It works. How do you think I came up with the idea for this post?

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

1

Kickin’ It Old School

Over the past month we’ve had some scheduled upgrades and maintenance take place on our server. Sometimes this means that we haven’t had access to our email or –horrors!- the Internet for as much as three hours at a time! Work screeches to a halt, thumbs are twiddled, hair is pulled. How can we get any work done without WiFi?

Oh yeah. People used to work like this every single day. And I’m not even talking about prehistoric hunters and gatherers, or even hardy homesteaders proving out their land in the Ozarks. I’m thinking of the not-so-distant days before e-books and Kindles, before Outlook and Firefox, before Post-Its and Keurigs. The good old days of penciled manuscripts and ink-penned contracts! Ernest Hemingway scrawling in a Paris café, Margaret Mitchell pounding away on this typewriter and using her finished pages to prop up her wobbly couch (or so Wikipedia assures me).

I don’t know that the DGLM office will be investing in typewriters or quills any time soon, but we did find worthwhile ways to spend our analog time. Some of us caught up on reading submissions (on pre-loaded Kindles, natch). Some of us went through the ominous to-file stack that we’ve been ignoring since Thanksgiving. Some of us thought about blog posts we could write when the Internet returns…

What are your tips for non-digital productivity?

13

The psychology of writing

I have a very strong interest in psychology that goes back to when I minored in it in college. My list has been peppered with titles over the years that explore various issues in this area and I am always interested in seeing new ideas with a psychological bend.

I enjoyed this article in authormagazine.org by published author Jennifer Paros about the psychology of writing. She used her son as a jumping off point, describing how as a young teenager he decided he had an interest in writing. He was then hampered by a fear of failure, essentially. My 8 year-old has recently expressed a similar interest, so I told her the only way to become a writer is to actually write but when I ask her if she wants to, the answer is usually no. I’m  not yet sure where her reluctance is coming from, but I’m going to keep an eye on it and try to encourage her to keep working on it.

Ms. Paros talked with her son about what was holding him back to get him past his stumbling blocks and the writing became easier and more natural. Eventually the process of writing outweighed the insecurity of worrying about a possible negative reaction in sharing his work.

This is likely a common stressor for writers and everyone else. We all worry, some more than others, about what people think of us or if they will react negatively to something we’ve said or done. It’s the people who use their mental strength to overcome these fears that will likely have the most success in writing or anything else they choose to do, a topic generating a great deal of interest following my client Amy Morin’s recent piece about mentally strong people and things they avoid.

What’s your biggest fear as a writer? Have you been able to overcome your insecurities to find a successful path? Share your stories. There are lessons to be learned for all of us.

1

Reading makes you a better person. Really. There are studies.

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author…who I’ve never read.

I know, I know.  I can’t tell you how many people whose tastes I respect and generally agree with have told me that I have to read this guy.  But, well, time (as in, who has any).  He’s in that pile of books by my bedside that will one day collapse, killing me instantly  (which will serve me right for not having gotten around to reading all the tomes that made it lethal to begin with).

But, I digress.  Even though I’ve never read Gaiman’s novels, I have read enough about him and short pieces by him that I feel like our world views are eminently simpatico.  For instance, in this wonderful rumination on reading  he elegantly explains why books are necessary for not just the individual’s mental health and success but society’s as well.  The skills acquired and developed through reading are transferable ones.  They can be used to create the next iPad, social media site, or weapon of mass destruction because they involve opening up the imagination to infinite possibilities.  He argues that reading fiction is the best workout for these particular muscles and, of course, he’s right.

I’ve always had a strong, and probably  somewhat delusional, belief that anything is possible and I think that might date back to my early penchant for fairy tales and books featuring wizards and witches (Merlin was and is a favorite character).  What book or books turned on the creativity faucet for you?  And do you think that fiction is, in fact, more effective than nonfiction in this respect?

3

Pigeonholing (sounds kinda nasty, right?)

We think a lot around here about authors getting pigeonholed into certain categories because one (or more) of their books was a success and now they are expected to keep writing variations on the same theme lest they alienate their core readership.   Of course, there are authors who are perfectly happy sticking to their comfort zone, but what about those who want to take a stab at different kinds of stories?  Just because her sci-fi novel about Jesuits in space achieved bestselling cult status, why can’t Mary Doria Russell write a brilliant Western or two about Doc Holliday and his cronies?  Why can’t the creator of thriller icon Rambo (a.k.a., David Morrell) not take us to Victorian England for a lively mystery featuring opium-addict-turned-detective Thomas De Quincey?  No reason, of course.  And both those authors (longtime clients) have done just that and found that their readership was able to fall in love with their work all over again.

But not everyone is able to switch gears so successfully.  Some authors have become so effectively enmeshed with a particular category or beloved character(s) that readers, at best, resist their efforts to branch out and, at worst, reject them altogether.  This piece in Cracked about “Books That Destroy Your Image of the People Who Wrote Them” made me laugh (see the Ben Franklin entry), but it also gave me pause.  I started to think about authors I love going off on wild tangents:  William Faulkner writing erotica?  Jonathan Franzen trying his hand at sunny children’s fiction?  Jacqueline Susann tackling literary biography (or really literary anything)?   It’s not that they couldn’t do it, I suppose, but I’d have such a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that my skepticism would ruin the reading experience.

Do you have that problem too?  Do you pigeonhole your favorite authors?  And, what crazy pairings of authors and categories could you envision?

Is reading changing?

I’m on vacation next week (Yay!) and for reasons I’ve never really understood (perhaps therapy would help), I’m in that clear-my-desk-of-everything-I’ve-been-meaning-to-take-care-of-since-January mode while being suddenly bombarded with contracts, manuscripts, and proposals that I’ve been waiting for roughly since, well, January and which have chosen this week to make an appearance with an “urgent” flag attached to them.  Of course, it’s my blog week as well so, in full pre-vacation madness, I shamelessly stole Jim McCarthy’s idea to ask his Twitter followers to suggest a topic for him when he returned from his travels. Several people helpfully responded to my plea and I very much appreciate their input.

The one idea that jumped out at me was submitted by our client Kevin Grange: “People are increasingly reading in shorter bursts on various e-devices. Should we construct stories differently? Thoughts?”

Partly, I sparked to this one because I’ve been fantasizing about which of my books I’m going to lug a physical copy of and which ones I’m going to add to my Kindle Fire.  (My grasp, as always, exceeds my reach here, folks.  I’m packing books like I’ve been sentenced to solitary confinement in Siberia instead of a week at the beach with my family.)

Despite my initial impulse to deny that my reading habits have changed at all and that, therefore, there’s any need to change the essential structure of storytelling,  Kevin’s question made me realize that I do, indeed, read in shorter bursts when using my Kindle (or any other electronic device).  In part, this is because, I don’t care what anyone says, my eyes get tired more quickly reading a screen.  Mostly, though, it has to do with the fact that Words With Friends, Ruzzle, Facebook, and the whole of the internet is also on my Kindle along with the 300 other titles and manuscripts residing therein.  So, if I hit a dull patch in my book, there’s always something else to take its place.

But does this mean that authors need to write shorter?  Shorter sentences?  Shorter paragraphs?  Shorter chapters?  Shorter books?  And is it already happening?

Thriller writers have known for years that trim chapters ending in cliffhangers build that all-important momentum, leading inexorably to the climactic scene involving a sinister villain, a put-upon hero(ine), and lots of weaponry.   But, does the fact that increasingly we’re ingesting our literature on e-readers mean that even literary fiction and nonfiction are conforming to the dictates of our ever shorter attention spans?

Instinctively, I want to say they are, but I’ve no solid data on the subject.  Basically,  I’m going to keep this in mind as I read and edit and consider new projects.  Meanwhile, I’ll just restate Kevin’s very good question here and ask what you all think.  For the writers out there, are you consciously shortening your stride when writing?  And for the readers, do you find, as I do, that you have less stickwithitness?

3

Still good advice

It’s been a bit of a crazy week, in part because I’m away next week and I’ve been trying to tie things up. I’m looking forward to my week in London, meeting with our publishing colleagues there (and hopefully seeing some sights, too).

But something came up this week that comes up rather often: authors and day jobs. First, I had a conversation with an author about her upcoming books and her current work situation, and whether she wanted to change that. She’s trying to decide if the security and distraction of the day job are more important than having all her time for writing. Shortly after that, my lovely client Anne Jamison tweeted a link to this newly discovered letter from Oscar Wilde, in which he advises a young writer that the best artists are those who don’t do it for a living.

I have pretty strong feelings on the subject, and they haven’t changed much since this blog post from (gulp) 2006. I don’t think my advice has changed at all, and the only thing I’d add to what authors worry about is Twitter and other social networking.

While it’s wonderful to make a living doing what you love to do, I think the benefits of most jobs (and benefits at most jobs) often outweigh the freedom. As author Sara Zarr points out in that old blog post, it’s not even necessarily either/or. Sometimes one can figure out a way to keep their job in a modified fashion to allow for the best of both worlds: security on the one hand, and freedom on the other. Especially in these uncertain economic times, playing it safe seems the wise way to go.

3

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?